Marxism: best defence against media manipulation

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British broadcasters win a High Court ruling against the police, a former Murdoch editor is arrested and the Leveson ‘inquiry’ into Press Standards meanders on: JJ Gaunt peeks behind the headlines and reviews two recent books critical of the media

On an 1886 tour promoting marxism and working class organisation in America, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling took time out to ridicule and denounce the US press in general and the Chicago Times and Chicago Tribune in particular for their lynch mob coverage of the trial of eight anarchists who had been fitted up by the state of Illinois and faced execution following the infamous Haymarket bomb incident.   

More than 125 years and many technological leaps later, modern mass media remain at root little more than megaphones amplifying the ruling class’s ‘values’, its lies, its propaganda, when they are not simply selling its commodities.

Much effort is expended on the part of the ‘fourth estate’ to deny this reality and turn it on its head. Commenting on the High Court’s May 17 decision to overturn a Crown Court judge’s order to hand over unseen footage of the violent police eviction of ‘travellers’ from Dale Farm, Essex in 2011, ITN (Independent Television News) chief executive John Hardie said: "This landmark decision is a legal recognition of the separate roles of the police and independent news organisations. We fought this case on a matter of principle - to ensure that journalists and cameramen are not seen as agents of the state ...”  Lawyers for other interested parties – they included the BBC, BSkyB and Channel 5 –  had said their clients risked being seen as “coppers’ narks” (police informants) if they had complied with the original order. That would never do, as M’lud wisely agreed.

It also won’t do to have the working class and the rest of the population tune-out of the Murdoch ‘Hackgate’ scandal of criminality, bribery and corruption with the erroneous impression that the media, police and politicians are ‘all in it together’.

It’s to restore public faith in the media mafia that the Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards has been protracted long after the original British state objective of clipping Murdoch’s UK activities had been achieved. (1) With hoards of ‘witnesses’ either denouncing the ‘Evil Empire’ (viz ex-Sunday Times editor Harold Evans) or clumsily attempting to defend the indefensible (viz the testimony of the News International clan itself or the self-serving testimonies of former PM Blair and current Culture and Media Secretary Jeremy Hunt), the ‘inquiry’ has turned into a modern Inquisition to exorcise the devil Murdoch, the better to redeem the rest of the media.

In the same manner, it’s to demonstrate the state’s due ‘impartiality’ and incorruptible nature that the very particular friends of PM David Cameron -  former News International golden child Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie, Cameron’s old school chum - were arrested and charged with the very serious offence (with apologies to AA Milne) of perverting the course of justice. (2)

Understanding the media: Marxism not moralism

These recent events featuring the UK state and its media apparatus are of course merely moments in an historic pattern – one long recognised by critics of the capitalist system. As Marx and Engels often argued, the ruling class’s particular interests are falsely presented as those of society as a whole. It’s the primary function of mass media to reflect and reinforce the resultant ‘dominant ideology’.

This material reality is illuminated and fleshed out in a recent and recommended book called Beyond the Left: The Communist Critique of the Media by UK lecturer Dr Stephen Harper (3).

His ‘Introduction: to guide and bind the world’ grabs the subject by the kishkas: “Having abolished scarcity and made communism possible by the early twentieth century, capitalism today is an obsolete system whose continuance offers humanity only increasing misery. As the social symptoms of this retrogression – poverty, starvation, holocausts, environmental degradation and economies increasingly based upon drugs, arms and gangsterism – become more difficult to disguise, the media play a vital role, it is argued here, in concealing their systemic origins.”

To this egregious end, the 1928 publication of Propaganda by Edward Bernays, American nephew of Sigmund Freud and known variously as the ‘king of spin’ and ‘the father of public relations’, constituted “a direct response to the socio-economic impasses of US capitalism in the 1920s, as a dearth of new markets, a crisis of over-production and the lingering menace of proletarian revolution forced capitalists to devise ever more ingenious methods of mass persuasion...”

One of the media’s most enduring successes in this regard is revealed in the chapterNormalising the unthinkable: news media as state propaganda in which Harper notes how the very notion of wage labour – once widely understood as “an outrage against humanity whose essential continuity with earlier forms of bondage found expression in the now antiquated phrase ‘wage slavery’” - is today throughout the mainstream media “accepted as a fact of life”. “Thus, in a period of austerity, the BBC’s Sunday morning television discussion programme The Big Question asks ‘Is It Time For A Maximum Wage?’ (13 March 2010); but it cannot question the legitimacy of the wages system itself.”

Within this marxist framework, which draws on the analyses of past and present day revolutionary organisations (including the ICC and ICT) and recognises both the decadence of capitalism and the primacy of the nation state over ‘supra-national corporations’, Harper’s other chapters include ‘Not neoliberalism: why the state is still the enemy’; ‘Blaming the victims, eroding solidarity: two media discourses on immigration’; ‘”The only honourable course’’: the media and ‘humanitarian’ war’ and ‘Beyond the news: popular culture against the working class’.

Under such headings he utilises the insights of social critics, media researchers and academics from Althusser to Žižek whilst acknowledging their limitations: Harper both quotes approvingly from Herman and Chomsky’s seminal Manufacturing Consent (1998) while roundly denouncing Chomsky for “the statism of his concrete political attachments” (today, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; yesterday, North Vietnam’s Stalinist Vietcong).

Before dissecting specific events and gauging what the ruling class accomplished from them (the chapter Bogeyman at the BBC: Nick Griffin, Question Time and the ‘fascist threat’ is exemplary in this regard) Harper insists that “The power of media propaganda to shape our perceptions of the most fundamental aspects of our lives is exercised neither haphazardly nor clumsily”, thus underlining that the bourgeoisie acts consciously against the proletariat, its potential gravedigger.

For the working class, the author insists that there’s nothing to choose between different media ‘slants’: “...the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels ... was excited by the BBC’s ability to maintain the trust of the British public and to have secured a worldwide reputation for the British media as ‘honest, free and truthful.’ Goebbels understood that this made the BBC the perfect propaganda vehicle. Today, as then, the left-liberal media act not as a foil to capitalism but as its last ditch defence, preventing those who reject conservative political positions from accessing or developing radical ideas. In fact, right-wing and left-wing media can be argued to work not in opposition to each other, but in tandem.”

The role of the media and the ‘pluralistic’ division of labour within it as cheerleaders of imperialist war and mystifiers of the gravity of today’s ecological crisis are also explored and expanded upon. For communists and activists of all stripes, Harper’s work is both required reading and an encouraging sign that proletarian perspectives are today spreading to and being embellished by wider layers of society.

Critical criticism required

Another book – there’s a veritable overproduction of them! – attempting to critique the media is NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century (4), a title recalling George Orwell’s 1984, a satire of mind control by an omnipresent state apparatus.  This work also insists that media such as newspapers – including and particularly those which claim to be ‘independent’, ‘left’ or just righteous and liberal – all owe their origins, development and continued survival as vehicles for corporate advertisers on whose revenue they depend and whose patronage they cannot truly offend. Similarly, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has since its foundation in the 1920s been first and foremost an obedient servant of the state’s overall interests as it demonstrated in the 1926 national strike and ever since.

The work is penned by two co-editors of a an organisation called Media Lens which challenges journalists, editors and broadcasters to justify their censorship, sins of omission and downright war-mongering, while providing e-mails to subscribers which highlight examples of the media’s latest outrages.

Indeed, NEWSPEAK reminds us all that facts are not ‘sacred’ but chosen according to taste and ideology while ‘objectivity’ is a nonsense – “nothing is neutral”. In addition it provides a salutary reminder of the depth and extent of the lies, dissembling and patriotic cheerleading around the build-up to the ‘allied’ invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation. It recalls how, as “a shoal of fish instantly changes direction ... as though the movement was synchronised by some guiding hand,” British journalists “all trained and selected for obedience by media all seeking to maximise profits within state capitalist society ... appeared [in 1999] to conclude independently that war on Serbia was a rational, justified response to a ‘genocide’ in Kosovo that had not in fact taken place. In 2002-03, many journalists concluded that war was necessary to tackle an Iraqi threat that did not exist. And yet, to our knowledge, in 2009, not a single journalist proposed military action in response to Israel’s staggering, very visible crimes against the besieged civilian population of Gaza.” The authors demonstrate how the media is again banging the drum for what they say is to be ‘the West’s’ next imperialist adventure: the bombing and possible invasion of Iran.

Similarly, this well-researched and documented work points out the staggering hypocrisy of media demanding ‘action’ over climate chaos as they carry adds promoting cheap flights, powerful motor cars and oil company claims to be forging a ‘cleaner, greener, fossil fuel-free future’.

However, such valid observations are undermined by NEWSPEAK’s own contradictions: despite declaring that ‘democracy’ is “a charade serving privilege and power” its description of the Iraqi slaughter as “an illegal war of aggression” (aren’t all wars ‘aggressive’ and exactly what’s with the fetish of bourgeois legality?); the references to ‘consumerism’ rather than capitalism; to ‘the people’ rather than the working class, etc, speak of an incoherence which ultimately favours the status quo.  Equally problematic is the tendency to deal with countries, rather than classes. For example, irrespective of the nuclear issue (the pretext for ‘the West’s’ aggression towards Iran), there’s no mention of the Tehran regime’s own regional imperialist aims and incursions, while the praise lavished by the authors on the state machine of Venezuela’s Chávez is frankly an embarrassment.

These and other elements indicate a set of analyses that fall within the framework of capitalist social relations as do the proposed solutions: the alleged need for ‘awareness, compassion and honest journalism.’  They are not truly radical because they do not go to the roots of the issue. Let’s end with Stephen Harper: “... the radical task is not to ‘work with’ the media industries and their regulatory bodies in order to campaign for ‘better’ media representations of the working class, or to defend so-called ‘public service’ media organisations against the encroachments of the market, but – through what Marx called ‘ruthless criticism’ – to expose the ruses of capitalism’s representational apparatuses until such time as they can be overthrown.”

JJ Gaunt 6/12

Footnotes

  1. See Murdoch scandal: The lies of the rich and famous in World Revolution 347, 2011, http://en.internationalism.org/wr/347/ni-murdoch-scandal
  2. Whether this well-connected couple will actually experience any substantial jail time is another matter.
  3. Beyond the Left: The Communist Critique of the Media, by Dr Stephen Harper, published by Zero Books, 2010, ISBN: 978 1 84694 976 0 Harper’s media criticism blog ‘Relative Autonomy’ can be accessed at http://www.relativeautonomy.com/
  4. NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, published by Pluto Press, 2009, ISBN: 978 0 7453 2893 5 Media Lens can be accessed at http://www.medialens.org/